Acting Class or Lessons in Courage

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Me with my face paint during an expressionist improvisation of Elmer Rice’s The Counting Machine in Russian

Every Friday comes my favorite nightmare: acting class.

It’s my favorite because I love the people, the professor, and it pushes me far beyond the bounds of anything remotely comfortable. It’s a nightmare because of precisely that: you never know what you’re going to get next. Improvise being a machine, participate in a group meditation for 40 min, lead your blindfolded classmate around the room by only their pinky…these are only some of the crazy variations of this glorious class…

The idea that I, a quiet child with very basic Russian and a heavy American accent, was even allowed into this class is beyond me. There actually were auditions for this class. 20 spots narrowed down to 10 (and then there’s few people who just show up anyways because they love the professor so much) weeded out by audition.

I remember my audition like it was yesterday. Palms sweating, my breath becoming shallow, my body shaking with fear as I realized I was going to have to get up in front of a class full of boisterous Russian students and improvise a ridiculous scene as a girl asking for her father’s blessing to marry her dad’s best friend from college. (Although, I suppose in the end that it was good that I was given the role of the scared child given how well I play that role in class every week)

So I did it. The audition. And people even laughed (so I suppose I was funny?). And best of all, I survived without barfing or crying or passing out. I was told afterwards that I was guaranteed one of the spots no matter what because I’m an international student so I suppose it’s good that I didn’t do any of the aforementioned things for naught.

Taking an acting class in a foreign language is for me an experience like no other. For one, there’s not really much reading or writing (I suppose here’s where I admit that one of the predominant reasons I signed up for this course is because the Cyrillic keyboard drives me crazy and the thought of writing an entire paper in Russian with a Cyrillic keyboard makes me want to pull out my eyelashes). But in exchange for not having to go mad hunting-and-pecking all over a keyboard, I instead am bombarded with questions, orders, confusion, and embarrassment that leaves me questioning whether I really did pick the “easy road” after all.

One of the many benefits of this class is that it forces me to be functional with the language I have. One of the first improvisation things we did was to improvise a scene about a spray bottle. First of all, I didn’t know what the word for spray bottle was in Russian (it’s распылитель if you’re wondering) and here I was improvising a scene about an object I didn’t even know…but then again? How much more different is that than me walking into an MTC store wondering what’s wrong with my cell phone and having literally no words to describe what the problem with my SIM card in Russian but still having to articulate something?  Another great benefit is that you lose your self-consciousness—fast. The very first day, I improvised a scene where I was lying on the floor being a glue monster (nope still not sure how that one translated; that’s one was translated to me by a classmate) in various situations such as a glue monster begging for forgiveness from a king or a mad glue monster of a glue monster in love… I think for one being a glue monster in any language is embarassing. But for me it was the first time I, with my painful American accent, spoke out and, phew, I was ready to go through the floor.

There are also just so many times in class when I just don’t know what’s going on. Like really don’t know. People are yelling at me or directing me or poking and prodding me in various directions, and I cannot tell you how, why, or what I’m saying in most situations. However, unlike a difficult or boring lecture class that you can just tune out (and thus only affecting yourself in the process), if I tune out of acting class, the entire scene is going down. And that’s stressful…

Think on your feet is really not my natural state of being. I like thinking. I like pondering the way my foot touches the grass or carefully observing my hand as it grasps the doorknob to turn it. But if you stop to smell the roses in acting class, you’re going to get trampled. As a result, I say stupid things, ask stupid questions, make mistakes, and trip over words like no other. At present I’m convinced that there’s perhaps a two-way 50% understanding rate as in I understand half of what they say and they understand half of what I say.

The greatest example of this was probably my name. For two whole weeks I was called completely the wrong name. For a while I was thinking, ok, I’ll go with it; it’ll be a stage name and was even introducing myself as this “new name.” But then, people started wanting to add me on social media and then I realized that oh gosh…probably should correct people so that they can find me and friend me! Well let’s just say that was embarrassing…

But at the same time I cannot get over how kind everyone is in the class. I feel like there’s this desire between us to communicate. The professor wants to talk to me about A Streetcar Named Desire, The Counting Machine, Oscar Wilde, and the students want to ask me about how I like acting or how I like Russia. And I want to ask them all about their lives, how they chose university, what courses they like, what they like to do…but alas the language barrier is so real you can almost physically feel it like a wall tall enough that you can barely peek over it if you stand on your tiptoes.

Then there’s little things that the students and teacher do to make me feel included that are so sweet and so kind. Making an opening for me to stand with them as their clustered around waiting for class to start, speaking with me outside of class and making sure I’m ok and understood everything…one girl even gave me a hug today! It’s incredibly heartwarming, and I just wish I had the language and the social skills to be able to tell them just how much it means to me to just be included and part of the group. I wish I could thank them for their kindness when faced with my utter confusion.

Acting class makes you feel emotional. I still cry after every single class (like a crazy person in my bus on the way home) from the overwhelming feelings of frustration, warmth, triumph (on the rare occasion I do understand something!), and confusion.

But each class is a triumph in its own way. It’s a place for me to learn more conversational Russian than I would ever get elsewhere. It’s a place for me to cast aside my self-consciousness. It’s a place for me to push myself. And it’s a family of friends who care about and support each other, and when you’re feeling alone in a foreign country that truly is exactly what you need.

Till the next show!